The first is possible; the latter tantalizing enough to fill all 32 days until pitchers and catchers report. First, let’s look at the likely loss of Morse.
“This whole Denard Span, Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse thing really doesn’t sit well with me,” Jack Berlien, a Nats fan, e-mailed me. “The Nats are now interested in trading Morse for a minor league pitcher; maybe Minnesota would trade Alex Meyer back to the Nats. That would be a net effect of trading Morse for Span. To me that is a net negative. And Span’s stats are no better than [Roger] Bernadina’s. I don’t get it.”
It’s not easy to get. At one level, the Nats’ whole offseason comes down to Morse for Span, plus replacing Edwin Jackson with Dan Haren. Does it make sense to swap a left fielder with a .295 career average and 30-homer power for a center fielder with a .284 career average and five-homer power?
Span is a fine defender, but he gets on base only occasionally more often than Morse (.357 to .347 career on-base percentage). He gives the Nats a conventional lefty leadoff man and a typical swift center fielder. But what’s so good about conventional? The Nats won 98 games with an atypical outfield of sluggers.
Why switch Bryce Harper’s bat out of center field, a spot he loves and where he was an all-star at 19? Why not find out if he’s Mickey Mantle? If you need a Span-type, isn’t Bernadina, also 28, close enough?
The Nats’ analysis may not be correct. It’s largely informed by advanced stats, plus eyeball valuations of Span’s defense. Lets keep it simple: We’ve got a WAR on our hands — as in, “wins above replacement.” It’s great theory. It’s also faddish. Depending on method, Span averages 3.2 or 3.3 WAR in his five years. Last year, he was 3.9 or 4.8 — a $15-million-plus player, if true.
Morse’s average WAR in three years as a Nat was 1.7 or 1.6, depending on method, but just 0.9 or 0.3 last season. If WAR is roughly right, and it gives Span lots of credit for both base running and defense while penalizing Morse for both, then Span is a fabulous three-win-a-year upgrade over Morse. And he’s under team control for three years, instead of Morse’s one. Besides, if you set out to manufacture a player who was a stat-and-function clone of Morse, but five years younger and $6 million cheaper, it would be Tyler Moore.
But if the WAR stats, and General Manager Mike Rizzo, are wrong, we may see Span as an uninspiring version of Bernadina and wonder why wacky clubhouse favorite “Mikey Mo” is hitting 30 homers (and playing DJ) for somebody else.
Worry if you want. But the Nats are happy, very happy. And it’s because LaRoche, who seemed almost certain to leave, has dropped back into their laps because a confluence of market factors that muted his free agent value.